Holiday weekend buoys hopes for season

Posted: Thursday, May 31, 2001

The Memorial Day holiday didn't disappoint local entrepreneurs, as Alaska residents and visitors from outside flocked to the peninsula.

'Memorial Day isn't nearly as busy as July. There are days in July that we have nearly 1,000 people come through our doors.

--Kathy Tarr, director,

Kenai Visitors and Cultural Center

Gwin's Lodge in Cooper Landing saw a drastic increase in patrons from last Memorial Day.

"We had about a 60 percent increase from last year. We were slammed (in the restaurant) all day," said Bryan Valentine, assistant general manager at the lodge.

Monday, the staff at Gwin's saw mostly Alaska residents driving home to Anchorage, but Tuesday was nearly as busy with visitors from out of state, lending hope to a tourist season that has many in the industry keeping expectations low.

Gwin's Lodge is expecting a bumper crop of tourists in the upcoming months. From June 10 until the first week of August, it is nearly booked solid.

Once the Russian and Kenai rivers are opened in Cooper Landing, the lodge will start operating around the clock.

"We go from doing (a couple) hundred meals a day to doing 600 once the rivers open," Valentine said. "I am from Florida, and I can't think of a business down there that does the same quantity as we do here."

Gwin's isn't the only area lodge expecting a steady flow of business this coming season. The Sprucewood Lodge in Soldotna had a 30 percent increase in customers from last year's Memorial Day.

John King, of the Sprucewood Lodge, credits most of the increase to marketing efforts. Even though last summer was his first year in operation, he said this summer is looking good.

"We are price-wise on the upper end of the scale. There is an element out there that wants to stay in a nicer place," he said.

Although it is almost booked for the rest of the summer, the Great Alaska Adventure Lodge in Sterling didn't see much business on the Memorial Day weekend.

"It wasn't very busy, pretty moderate actually. Traffic on the peninsula definitely slowed down a bit," said Joshua Wells from the lodge. "(Tourism) is down a little bit from last year, which was down a lot from the year before. I have no idea whether it is the slowing economy or what."

Kathy Tarr, director of the Kenai Visitors and Cultural Center, agreed that the national economy always plays a certain role in Alaska's tourism industry. But she said she doesn't think that the tourism outlook for the summer is as dismal as others believe.

"I don't think that it is going to necessarily grow, just stay the status quo. There are going to be certain parts of the state that see a slight decrease," she said.

The visitors center shared in the influx of tourists on Memorial Day.

"We were busier this year than we were last year," Tarr said.

Last Memorial Day the center hosted 196 people, compared with 230 this year. Tarr credits the increase to recent media attention about the "2001: A Fish Odyssey" art exhibit currently showing at the center.

May's numbers alone have broken records for the center. School children from the peninsula as well as from Anchorage have visited the show en masse.

According to Tarr, well over 1,000 students visited the center during the last month.

With only one day to go, May has already brought more than 5,000 visitors to the center, close to the 6,169 visitors in May 2000 and well above the more than 3,000 from May 1999.

Memorial Day visitors to the center were mostly Alaska residents who were passing through the area from the Captain Cook State Recreation Area, Tarr said.

"A large part of our numbers for May are from in state. We have only really started to see other visitors from outside of Alaska in the last few weeks."

The core of the visitor season is May through September, when more than 80 percent of tourists visit. With June just around the corner, the Memorial Day rush didn't stop on Monday.

Tuesday at the center was nearly as busy, even though people from Memorial Day were probably already home. By mid-afternoon 135 people had visited.

"Now we are going into June, more out-of-state tourists are showing up," said Tarr. "We tend to see people who have been in the state awhile and are on their way to Homer. Mostly people who have already been to Seward or Anchorage and have been in the area a few days or a week."

Despite the May numbers, no month has ever surpassed July.

"Memorial Day isn't nearly as busy as July, there are days in July that have nearly 1,000 people come through our doors," Tarr said. "Memorial Day is still really just the cusp of the blockbuster month which is July."

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